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Malen, Watkins & Iheanacho: The strikers who could replace Firmino at Liverpool

08:00 WAT 07/05/2021
Ollie Watkins Donyell Malen Kelechi Iheanacho 2021
Ahead of the summer window, Goal teamed up with scouting company Real Metric Analytics to find forwards who match up to Firmino statistically

Jurgen Klopp would disagree, but it feels like the end of an era at Liverpool.

The Reds’ stint as Premier League champions may have been extended briefly, courtesy of last Sunday’s postponement at Manchester United, but their reign as top dogs ended some time ago.

After the glory of 2019 and the joy of 2020, the comedown of 2021 has been a heavy one. 

The question now is how will they react? After months of struggle and frustration, what can Klopp do to get the ball rolling again at Anfield?

Some of his problems will sort themselves. The return of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, for example, should immediately restore some order in defence, while having supporters back inside Anfield can only help in terms of confidence, focus and intensity.

Do not underestimate the impact empty stands have had on a team which uses "our identity is intensity" as its motto. 

Other issues, though, are less clear cut.

How, or indeed with whom, will Gini Wijnaldum be replaced? Will Klopp adjust tactically, and if so, how? How does Thiago Alcantara fit into the jigsaw? And can the full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, be as devastatingly effective in the future as they have been in the past?

Perhaps most pertinently of all, could this really be the end of the road for the club’s famed front three? 

What’s the problem?

There is no question that Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino will go down in Anfield folklore. They are one of the best attacking combinations English football has ever seen, and have been instrumental to Liverpool’s success under Klopp. 

Club legends, without any shadow of a doubt.

Since being put together for the 2017-18 season, their numbers have been staggering. Liverpool have played 214 games in all competitions in that time, and Mane, Salah and Firmino have scored 265 goals between them.

With those three at the sharp end, the Reds became English, European and world Champions: a relentless winning machine, built around intense work, speed and devastating efficiency.

Every party has to end sometime, though, and it has felt in recent months as though, after four years of MSF, the time may have come to shake things up.

“No front three is ever together for this long,” says Reds legend Jamie Carragher. "When you look at other great attacking partnerships from the past, they last probably three years and then you move on.

"People keep talking about Liverpool's problems at centre-back, but their biggest problem is at the other end of the pitch.”

The numbers bear this out. Mane, Salah and Firmino netted a combined 91 goals in their first season together, but that figure has dropped year on year, even as Liverpool continued to enjoy success.

They managed 69 in 2018-19, 57 in 2019-20, and are on 48 with five games remaining in this campaign – though it should be noted that Diogo Jota, the fourth high-quality forward in the squad, has chipped in with 12 since his arrival from Wolves last summer.

Salah, in fairness, is enjoying his best scoring campaign since that 44-goal debut season on Merseyside. He has 29 in all competitions, his eye fixed firmly on a third Premier League Golden Boot award.

Mane and Firmino’s output has dipped though. Mane has just 13 goals and Firmino only six. Nowhere near enough for players of such quality. Nowhere near enough for a team with Liverpool’s ambitions. 

Carragher is among those who believe a change is needed moving forward.

“They have been amazing,” he said, “but it's just at that stage now where it needs something else, and it must be rectified in the summer.”

The Firmino question

The biggest issue, surely, surrounds Firmino, whose struggles go back further than the last couple of months.

The Brazil international's worth to Liverpool has never been measured purely in terms of goals – “Bobby plays like 12 different instruments in our orchestra!” Klopp said earlier this season – but 18 in 95 appearances is not a record to be proud of, and certainly not for a player who wears the No.9 shirt.

At his best, Firmino still makes Liverpool better, facilitating for Mane, Salah and the full-backs, with his movement, touch and pressing from the front. There are few more intelligent players around.

His finishing has never been what you would call clinical – this season he has scored over five fewer goals than his xG (expected goals) suggest he should have – but he still ranks highly in other areas when compared to his fellow Premier League centre-forwards.

His ranking for xG Buildup per 90 minutes, for example, is the best in the league among strikers. That means he is regularly involved in attacking play which results in a high xG shot for his team.

Firmino’s numbers are also impressive when it comes to open-play key passes per 90, offensive pressures per 90, deep progressions per 90 and dribble success percentage.

He is also remarkably durable – an underrated quality - having made close to 300 appearances across his six years on Merseyside. Only Salah has featured more since the start of the 2017-18 campaign. 

His importance to Klopp’s system, and to Liverpool’s success, cannot be overstated. He would take some replacing, even if it does not feel that way at the moment.

Potential replacements

So how would they go about it, then? Are there players out there who match up, in terms of skillset? 

To find out, Goal teamed up with Real Metric Analytics, a company which provides scouting and recruitment assistance via a platform which takes in data from more than 35 leagues, assesses more than 30,000 players and covers over 75,000 matches worldwide.

You may remember an article Goal wrote in December, assessing Liverpool’s potential options for a centre-back signing, who matched the strengths and playing style of Virgil van Dijk and/or Joe Gomez.

Ozan Kabak was one of the players flagged up by RMA’s database, as was Duje Caleta-Car, who Liverpool attempted to sign from Marseille in the final hours of the January window. Ibrahima Konate, who has been strongly linked with a summer move to Anfield, was another name who cropped up.

This time, we asked RMA to use their ‘player similarity index’ tool to flag up players who compare with Firmino, who have similar strengths and show up strongly in the same statistical areas.

The results are intriguing, to say the least. The most comparable player, according to RMA’s database, is Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins, who boasts a similarity index of 89.9%. Watkins, interestingly, has been linked with the Reds of late, having scored 13 goals in his first top-flight campaign.

Another in-form Premier League striker, Kelechi Iheanacho of Leicester City, features on the list, as does PSV's Donyell Malen, a player suggested as a possible target in the Dutch media recently. Malen, at 22 and reportedly available for £27 million ($37.5m), certainly feels like a player who would be on Liverpool’s radar.

His similarity to Firmino is rated at around 86%, less than the likes of Victor Osimhen (Napoli), Jonas Wind (FC Copenhagen), Antony (Ajax), Joao Pedro (Watford) and, most surprisingly, Rangers’ Colombian talisman Alfredo Morelos. It is probably safe to rule that one out, though! 

Erling Haaland, naturally, features on the list, although there is little chance of Liverpool competing for the Borussia Dortmund man this summer. More intriguing are the likes of Sasa Kalajdzic of Stuttgart and Leon Bailey of Bayer Leverkusen, both of whom have a similarity index rating of 88%.

Kevin Volland of Monaco ranks even higher, though his age – he will turn 29 in July – would almost certainly count against him.

What about an Origi replacement?

Another issue - and some would argue an even bigger issue - surrounds the quality of Liverpool’s attacking depth beyond the tried and trusted.

There is, after all, a reason why Firmino (and Salah and Mane for that matter) has played so many games in the last few years. He has had to because, quite simply, the standard of player replacing him just has not been good enough. 

Jota’s signing was a huge step in the right direction, in that regard, but the purchase of Takumi Minamino has not worked out, with the Japan international having been loaned to Southampton in January after starting only three Premier League games in a year.

Xherdan Shaqiri is a fine player, and underused in the eyes of many, but suits a different system to Klopp’s favoured 4-3-3, while the demise of Divock Origi has been rapid.

The Belgian has started only six games this season, and has not scored a Premier League goal since the final day of the last campaign at Newcastle. He is a cult hero, but his days are numbered at Anfield. 

As with Firmino, we asked Real Metrics Analytics to find some players comparable to Origi, whose strongest statistical suits are his aerial wins per 90, his goal conversion and his possession regains per 90. He scores weakly, meanwhile, when it comes to deep progressions, xG assisted, dribble success and the number of times he is dispossessed per 90 minutes. 

Interestingly, the player deemed most similar is Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah (89.9%), while Jonathan David, Lille’s Canadian forward, also scores highly (89.5%). 

Ivan Toney, leading scorer in the Championship with Brentford, is another statistical match, while there are intriguing suggestions in the likes of Che Adams (Southampton), Tino Kadawere (Lyon) and Boulaye Dia (Reims).

The likes of Lautaro Martinez, Wout Weghorst and Andre Silva are less likely to appeal, price and/or age-wise.

What happens this summer?

The understanding from within Anfield is that there will be at least one forward arrival in the summer, though sources have dismissed links with Leeds’ impressive Brazilian, Raphinha, and Watford’s Ismaila Sarr, both of whom have been touted in the past.

Much will depend on whether Liverpool can offload their fringe players, and for how much.

Origi should have buyers, and Shaqiri will attract interest across Europe. Marko Grujic and Harry Wilson will also be sold if possible, while a decision must be made on Minamino, who may be given another chance around the first-team squad.

Harvey Elliott, impressive during a loan spell in the Championship with Blackburn Rovers this season, will be given a chance during pre-season, and at 18 is viewed very much as a potential first-teamer for the future. 

Whether Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Naby Keita can establish themselves is another question.

Klopp insisted recently that Keita’s long-term future is on Merseyside, but the Guinea international has not featured since being hauled off after just 42 minutes of the Champions League quarter-final with Real Madrid last month, and has appeared in only a third of the Reds’ games in all competitions this season.

A midfielder will be needed to replace Wijnaldum, who is set to depart on a free transfer. Yves Bissouma of Brighton has been strongly linked, as has Borussia Monchengladbach’s Florian Neuhaus, while the arrival of at least one centre-back, most likely Konate, is a must. 

It will not be an easy summer, especially if Liverpool miss out on Champions League qualification, as appears likely. The club announced losses of £46m ($64m) recently, and sources expect that figure to rise well above £100m ($139m) by the time the full cost of the coronavirus pandemic is counted. 

It is a crucial summer, though, as Klopp looks to get Liverpool firing again.

And that could well spell the end of a glorious attacking era at Anfield.